Proving you’re an adult turns you into a child

Twentysomething Brits shouldn’t have to provide state-backed ID in order to purchase a glass of wine or can of beer.

Dolan Cummings

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Topics Politics

In the UK, it is now common practice for supermarkets and other licensed premises to ask for ID from anybody who looks like they might be under-21 or under-25, depending on the policy of the company in question. This is a response to government crackdowns on under-age drinking, and is backed up with threats of fines for bar staff and cashiers. The new coalition government proposes to increase the penalty for serving under-age drinkers to £20,000.

A new report from the Manifesto Club, 28 ¾: How Constant Age Checks Are Infantilising Adults, shows that these policies have a significant downside, with thousands of adults in their twenties and thirties being hassled by constant ID checks. In the Manifesto Club’s survey of people’s experiences of frequent ID-checking, we found that the most annoyed constituency is people in their late twenties, who are being frequently ID-checked by supermarkets. By far the largest group of respondents (48 per cent) were in the 25-to-29 age group and 95 per cent of ID-check incidents occurred in supermarkets. Several people in their late twenties reported that they have been checked far more over the past two years than when they were 18, and that they are now forced to carry their passport when they go shopping.

We also found that ‘Think 21’ and subsequent ‘Think 25’ policies, whereby checkout staff are required to ask anyone who looks under the specified age for ID, have led to extreme confusion about the legal age limit, with a number of cases of cashiers refusing sales to people because they were under 25 (but over 18). New legislation, due to come into force in October 2010, threatens to bring this confusion into the law itself. The law will require retailers to ask for photographic ID from any customer appearing to be under the age specified in that company’s own policy.

Our research also found that people are being refused alcohol sales when shopping with younger siblings or children, on the basis of suspicions that the alcohol could be for the child. Case studies cited in the report include that of one woman who was prevented from buying a bottle of wine, because her 23-year-old daughter and 22-year-old friend could not provide ID. In another case, a 17-year-old girl wasn’t allowed to help her grandmother carry her shopping because there was alcohol in the bag.

The majority of respondents felt patronised and insulted by these policies. They didn’t see why they had to prove their adulthood well into their twenties and thirties, and felt that checks created a disrespectful and unfriendly atmosphere. Many resented the inconvenience of being refused sales or having to carry their passports to the shops. Only one respondent found ID checks flattering. In 46 per cent of the incidents reported, the respondent was able and willing to show ID in order to buy alcohol, while in 36 per cent of incidents they had to leave the store empty-handed.

It is important to recognise that the law allows retailers to sell alcohol to anyone aged 18 or over, and that supermarkets have adopted ‘Think 25’ and similar policies voluntarily. Why? Undoubtedly, there has been political pressure, and important changes to the regulatory regime, but these would not have had the effect they have if not for the changing moral climate. Stores are keen to describe themselves as ‘responsible retailers’ and assume that there is more or less unlimited public support for measures to prevent underage alcohol sales.

As the Manifesto Club survey shows, however, many customers do in fact object to what they see as extreme, unnecessary and patronising age-check policies. There has so far been little public debate about the issue, with the result that these individuals feel isolated and under pressure to comply with what is presented as a socially responsible measure. The context for this is widespread political and media concern about anti-social behaviour and poor health resulting from ‘binge drinking’, especially involving young people. Underage drinking has become emblematic of what UK prime minister David Cameron has called ‘Broken Britain’, and there is a consensus that something has to be done.

No doubt many people in Britain do drink too much, and the stock footage reflects a reality in certain parts of British towns and cities on weekend evenings. What is more questionable, however, is whether it makes sense to target excessive drinking in its own terms, and whether the measures proposed to deal with it are both effective and without significant downsides. When alcohol is blamed for everything from teenage misbehaviour to domestic violence, from poor health to social breakdown, it seems wise to ask whether politicians are not avoiding deeper social problems. If it means anything at all, there must be more to ‘Broken Britain’ than ‘Boozy Britain’. And if alcohol is being unfairly blamed for other social problems, it is all the more reasonable to take issue with the illiberal consequences of grandstanding efforts to control it.

The Manifesto Club has already documented the effects of Designated Public Place Orders – otherwise known as ‘Controlled Drinking Zones’ or simply ‘booze bans’ – which effectively criminalise drinking in public in whole areas of many towns and cities by allowing the police or Community Support Officers to confiscate alcohol without having to give a reason. In the name of protecting the public from drunken and abusive behaviour – behaviour that could in fact be more than adequately dealt with by previously existing legislation – our freedom to enjoy a drink in the park or on the beach has been compromised. For some, this is no big deal, or even a welcome curb on other people’s uncouth behaviour, but undeniably it makes public space less free, transforming what had been a question of taste or morality into a policing matter.

There are significant downsides to overpolicing the sale of alcohol. Most significantly, excessive age checks treat all young adults as children until they can prove otherwise. Instead of being a matter of common sense, the question of whether someone is an adult or not is determined by a bureaucratic ID-check. The fact that people who are obviously adults are expected to comply without complaint suggests a significant erosion of the traditional sense that adults are autonomous individuals who don’t have to answer to authorities in the way that children do. Even in proving their age and being allowed to buy alcohol, people are not in fact asserting their adulthood but instead are deferring to the baseless authority of checkout bureaucracy. It is even worse when they are expected to be flattered by having their adulthood questioned, as if adolescence is an ideal to which we should all aspire.

Dolan Cummings is a founding member of the Manifesto Club. Read his report 28 ¾: How Constant Age Checks Are Infantilising Adults here.

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Topics Politics

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